Are Foreign Gifts and Research Grants Buying Campus Chaos?

Are Foreign Gifts and Research Grants Buying Campus Chaos?

  • January 26, 2024
The rise in campus antisemitism sparks a new debate about colleges’ resistance to scrutiny of foreign gifts

FOIA documents recently obtained by government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) reveal a concerted effort to influence federal officials on proposed legislation to monitor foreign funding given to colleges and universities. The contentious 2021 amendment to the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) called for university gifts and contracts of more than $1 million from any foreign source to undergo a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

CFIUS is chaired by the Treasury Department and includes nine relevant agencies. It has traditionally examined large transactions between foreign entities and American companies for threats to U.S. security. The amendment to USICA would have given CFIUS responsibility for looking at large-dollar foreign research grants and gifts to U.S. universities.

According to media reports, since 1990 universities and colleges have received an estimated $43 billion in gifts and grants from foreign sources, and one in four of those donations have come from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China – countries with interests in opposing or undermining U.S. strategic wellbeing. Since the Hamas terror massacre in Israel on October 7, 2023, antisemitic protests and attacks have occurred on many American campuses. The response from much of the leadership of prominent universities has been tepid, raising questions about whether large gifts from foreign nations opposed to Israel have played a part in rendering the administrations at these institutions reluctant to act decisively against antisemitism on their campuses. A growing feeling among lawmakers and members of the public is emerging that this justifies the U.S. government keeping a closer eye on these foreign gifts.

Institutions of higher education objected to the measure ostensibly because the review would be burdensome and delay research. The documents obtained from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) reveal an MIT employee trying to sway OSTP opinion on how foreign gifts and grants to universities are processed. MIT’s president was among the three university leaders confronted at a recent Congressional hearing about antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the October 7 attacks. Each of these leaders maintained at the hearing that calls for the genocide of Jews would only violate their university’s code of conduct depending on the context. The president of MIT is the only one of the three who has not since resigned.

One email contained in the FOIA documents, from Mr. David Goldston, director of the MIT D.C. office, details an exchange in which OSTP’s Jason Matheny asks for more information on the new CFIUS provision. Mr. Goldston makes clear his extreme concern about the provision and lays out several “talking points that explain why CFIUS review is a bad idea” for OSTP to use when arguing against the review of foreign funding to universities.

I can also send you the letter of opposition university associations sent to Senate Foreign Relations when the provision was pending.  Let me know if you need anything more.  Also, please let me know how you’d like to follow up on the e-mail the other day on future China meetings, and asking for the names of who we should talk to on the NSC staff about Skoltech and Russia.

The talking points complain about the length of CFIUS decisions and other aspects, including,

CFIUS does not include any official with knowledge and understanding of research other than the director of OSTP…

The likely result is that U.S. universities and research will be hampered without any commensurate gain in national security.

In an earlier email, during a committee markup on the bill, Mr. Goldston warns the OSTP acting director, “If the administration has problems with the CFIUS section – which it should – it needs to signal that…ASAP.”

“The outbreak of blatant antisemitism on many college campuses, including those considered among the most elite, in the wake of an attack against Jewish people revealed something very disturbing at the core of our most revered institutions,” said PPT Director Michael Chamberlain. “That they have also for years resisted scrutiny from federal overseers prompts a broader discussion about the integrity of our system of higher education. Quite apart from the potential access foreign gifts could provide to important technological advancements, can bad actors or adversarial regimes buy good public relations among our leaders of tomorrow? America’s research universities are a triumph of our open system and economy. The American public needs to trust that they are also not a weak link in our security.”